During the coronavirus pandemic, many people working from home have developed physical ailments – muscle tension, back, neck and shoulder pain, numbness and weakness in our arms – and suffered headaches and migraines. The causes? Poor sitting posture, non-ergonomic workstations and decreased blood flow thanks to a lack of physical activity. An ancient Chinese massage therapy known as gua sha can help relieve the tight knots in our bodies, reduce muscle tension and improve circulation. “ Gua sha involves the use of a smooth-edged tool to gently scrape or stroke the skin,” says Clara Chan, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner from Oriental Health in Hong Kong. “The scraping motion works on the myofascial layer of membranes that surround, connect and support the muscles. This releases existing energy – qi – blockages, making it an effective way to ‘release’ pain. “In addition, this TCM therapy increases blood circulation, promotes lymphatic drainage and enhances skin health.” Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Chan has seen an increase in patients with neck, back and shoulder pain and even numbness in their fingers. Many experience pain relief almost immediately after their first gua sha session, she says, and return for regular treatments to prevent the problem from worsening or recurring. Feeling anxious? Don’t fight it, expert says – use it to unlock superpowers Studies support the treatment’s pain-reducing benefits. A 2014 Thai study found that gua sha improved the range of movement and reduced neck and shoulder pain in people who use computers regularly. Another study, published in 2011 in the journal Pain Medicine , showed that gua sha delivered short-term pain relief in people with chronic neck pain, which is sometimes accompanied by migraines. Chan says gua sha can be used with other TCM treatments such as cupping , acupuncture and herbal therapy to treat pain and other issues, and to help detoxify and reduce fever. Some people also find gua sha relaxing and mood elevating. “As gua sha has a lifting effect on the skin and helps with blood circulation, it’s often used to help with skin puffiness, tension in the facial muscles, and fine lines and wrinkles,” she says. According to Chan, gua sha dates back to around 2,500 years ago. The earliest inhabitants of modern-day China incorporated a stone called a bian , which they believed had healing powers, into their healthcare. “Healing stone therapy is the oldest form of medical treatment in China, predating even acupuncture,” she says. “ Ancient Chinese used bian stones to massage and stroke the body to release pain and alleviate other symptoms. “The knowledge accumulated during this time – with regards to what strokes and how much pressure to use – formed the basis of the gua sha we practise today.” Gua sha practitioners have at times used various other objects with flat surfaces, such as coins, porcelain spoons, and tools made from wood or horn, to gently scrape and massage patients’ skin. These days, gua sha uses a wide range of tools that vary in shape, texture and the materials they are made from, says Dr Michelle Law, a TCM practitioner at Hong Kong’s Vitality Centre. Common materials include stainless steel and ox horn, while jade and other semi-precious stones are especially popular for facial gua sha . “Designed to target different parts of the body, the edges are smooth, allowing the tools to glide across lubricated skin with ease,” Law says. “Some of the tools are contoured so that they align perfectly with the natural curves of the face and body.” Some materials are believed to deliver additional benefits, Chan says. For example, ox horn is said to reduce “ internal heat ”, while rose quartz promotes blood circulation and jade helps calm and balance the emotions. After a gua sha treatment, it is not uncommon to see a red spotty rash or light speckled bruising on your skin. Called petechiae, it occurs where the pressured strokes or scraping motion from the gua sha tool has caused the tiny capillaries under the skin to burst. Petechiae is also called “sand rash” – gua sha means to “scrape sand” – and Law notes that it usually subsides in three to seven days. Gua sha: why the ancient TCM practice is now a viral skincare trend A TCM practitioner can usually tell what’s affecting you based on the colour of the petechiae. Chan says that bright-red bruises may indicate a severe imbalance in that particular area, while black or purple bruises may signal that a blockage, qi stagnation or blood stasis has been ongoing in that spot for a prolonged period. Deep-red bruises may indicate “internal heat”. Some people may also experience soreness or muscle tenderness for a short while after their gua sha treatment. “ Gua sha is relatively non-invasive, but it can damage the skin if the tool or force applied is inappropriate,” says Chan. “We don’t recommend this therapy for people who bleed easily, who are taking blood-thinning medication, or who have medical conditions that affect their skin or blood vessels,” Chan says. “If you have an infection, a tumour or a wound that hasn’t fully healed, or you have an implant such as a pacemaker or an internal defibrillator and want to try gua sha , your treatment should only be performed by a trained medical professional who has a thorough understanding of your medical condition.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .